Pride in our property
By BARBARA TRANQUILLA
© St. Petersburg Times, published November 30, 2000
Business Basics Chapter Three
Do you ever wonder why people say one thing and do another? For example, people say they want clean air, water and a healthy environment, but they do things instead that pollute, litter and waste resources.
The "tragedy of the commons" goes a long way to explain this contradiction. Tragedy of the commons could be the title of a Greek play or Shakespearean drama, but it is also another sad story: the devastation to publicly owned property because no one takes personal responsibility for something that belongs to everyone. Do you really want to spend every Saturday cleaning up your neighborhood park if all your neighbors do is use it?
Economists are social scientists who study human behavior when confronted with the problem of limited resources and unlimited wants. The production, distribution and consumption of goods and services is not a simple task because of the problem of scarcity. Therefore, economists theorize about the ways people go about allocating limited resources of land, labor, capital and entrepreneurship.
Because people act in a rational way most of the time, behavior is somewhat predictable. Long ago, about 300 B.C., Greek philosopher Aristotle made some conclusions about property that was owned collectively compared with property that was owned privately. His conclusions explain why your bathroom at home is better cared for than the restrooms at school, why school textbooks have torn and scribbled pages but your personal library is undamaged. Private ownership encourages owners to better care for their property to ensure continued value. Also, people experience a sense of pride associated with possessions. Caretaking does not usually accompany common property, whether that property is land or objects.
In 1968, biologist Garrett Hardin named this concept "tragedy of the commons" in an article that appeared in Science magazine. The example he used was the destructive use of publicly owned grazing land. Individuals continued to bring cattle to the public grazing area even though the land was overgrazed, because there was no incentive not to do so. Individual herdsmen incurred no costs regardless of the number of livestock in their herds. Eventually, the land became so overgrazed it lost its value. Had those using the grazing area been assigned a section or charged for use according to herd population, then market controls would have preserved the grazing land.
In our own economy, we have many examples of "commons" such as public parks, lakes, wildlife, rivers, oceans, public forests, highways and public schools. The important question we have to answer in relation to these commons is: How do we protect them? One way we have historically protected the commons is by government regulation, and a more recent method of protection is the use of free market methods and privatization.
We in the United States take pride in the eagle, a symbol of strength and independence. However, several years ago bald eagles were near extinction. To deal with this situation, largely caused by the use of the chemical DDT, the U.S. government banned any further use of the substance. Other rules, such as banning residential or business development near eagle nests, were put in place. As a result, the bald eagle is now considered threatened, not endangered.
Elephants have faced much the same situation in various African nations. Once thought to be in danger of extinction and considered to be nothing more than destructive "large gray mice" to village gardens, these animals now thrive in some parts of the continent. The reason for this turn-around was privatizing of the elephants -- that is, giving ownership of elephants to various villages. Once the villagers realized they could make money off the elephants through photo safaris, they realized they owned a valuable resource that should be protected. The villagers began to self-police against poachers wanting to kill the elephants for their ivory, and the elephant herds are now growing. In this case, villagers were given an incentive to keep the elephants alive so that they could make money off them. Previously, no incentive existed to cause the villagers to look kindly on the elephants.
Try it out
Now, restate the rules for a new round of fishing. This time there are the same number of fish, one per square and one on one of the grid lines, but each person is assigned a grid as his or her own area to fish. If anyone takes another's fish, they will get fined and have to replace the fish that is not theirs. Offer the same rewards as in the first round of fishing. What will happen this time? How was it different? What happened to the fish on the grid line? Was it the only one taken in the first round? Why? What was the effect of taking a resource that was initially owned in common and making it a private resource? How did the incentives change in this round versus the initial round of fishing?
Now, apply this same understanding to the following situations and see if solutions can be developed:
n Why do we have more chickens than pheasants?
n Why do students treat the school cafeteria differently from their dining area at home?
n Why is Disney World cleaner than our public parks?
n Why do we have more buffalo today than 50 years ago?
Durant, Will, The Life of Greece, Simon & Schuster, New York, 1939.
Hardin, Garrett, The Tragedy of the Commons, Science, 1968.
Kreuter, Urs, and Randy T. Simmons, Who Owns the Elephants? In Wildlife, in the Marketplace, ed. Terry L. Anderson and Peter J. Hill, Rowman and Littlefield, Lanham, Maryland, 1995.
Schug, Mark C., John S. Morton, and Donald R. Wentworth, Economics and the Environment: EcoDetective, National Council on Economic Education, New York, 1995.
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-- Barbara Tranquilla is a longtime teacher of economics in the Dade County public school system. She has won numerous state and national economics teaching awards and in 1995 was the first to be named Florida Economics Educator of the Year by the Florida Council on Economic Education.
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